There are one million children in New Zealand. Nine out of ten of them have no connection with the church and most have no idea why we celebrate Easter and Christmas. We are two or three generations removed from an understanding of the biblical narrative, where many people no longer know the story of Jesus. We can no longer assume that children in our communities have any knowledge of the Bible, and we can’t assume their parents will tell them.
Even when families are connected with a church community it’s not always easy; one of the most common challenges facing children’s ministries in churches today is the lack of consistent attendance of families—those families which do attend church do so infrequently. The reasons for this are varied and often reflect the societal pressures families face.
This is a sobering picture, but it is the reality many of our churches are facing; and that is why we’re encouraging churches to prayerfully explore ways we can reach children and their families with the good news about Jesus, and sharing them!
Our hope is that sharing these ideas will encourage open and thoughtful discussion in our churches about how we can take ministry to children out of the realm of babysitting kids while ‘real’ church happens and into the life and context of the wider church community.
The heart of our ministry
The gospel is the focus of our ministry; it is the power of the gospel that changes hearts.
Our mission as the Church is to lead people into a growing relationship with Jesus. We need to cling to the mission but be flexible with the model. It might mean we rethink how we do children’s ministry and be open to new ways of ‘doing’ church. It may mean we stop doing some good things so that we can invest in better things.
Are we brave enough to ask some hard questions about how we see and value children? Are we ready to reset priorities and invest time and resources into reaching, nurturing and discipling our children? Can we be innovative and find fresh ways to reach new generations with the love of Christ?
There is no one answer to the challenge of reaching children and families, nor will the solution be the same for every church. But what keeps families together?
It’s relationship and connectedness, a sense of belonging and significance. These are the things we need to be talking and praying about when we think about ministry with children and families.
Why intergenerational church matters so much
Where churches intentionally facilitate and provide opportunities for intergenerational relationships to develop, children and families find a sense of belonging and connection.
Building connection and belonging might occur on a Sunday morning or at other times during the week, but it must happen for our churches to be healthy and welcoming.
Our churches have long held to the model of dividing our congregations by age. Perhaps it is time to be flexible with this model and consider the benefits of a model of intergenerational faith formation?
Families spend a lot of time apart during the week. With increasingly busy lives, there is little time to be together as a family. Then, at church, we continue this separation. What would happen if we were to provide opportunities for families to worship together on Sundays sometimes?
Spiritual development does not happen in linear progression from childhood to adulthood, nor does it happen when we are only with people our own age. It happens in community, where people of all ages and walks of life share their journey of faith with each other. It happens when children hear stories of God’s faithfulness and love from older generations and when adults are challenged by the faith and curiosity of children.
Faith formation happens through relationship, not programmes; through connection, not segregation. There are real benefits in being together to hear and learn from each other. We can find connection and unity in worshipping together as the whole body of Christ.
The power of family
The average church has approximately 40 hours per year to influence children. By contrast, parents have 3000 hours.
It makes sense, then, to invest some time and resources into empowering and equipping parents to be the primary nurturers of their children’s faith. Deuteronomy 6:6-7 gives a blueprint for how to pass on faith to the next generation:
Memorise his laws and tell them to your children over and over again. Talk about them all the time, whether you’re at home or walking along the road or going to bed at night or getting up in the morning.
It is parents who are best placed to do this. They are the ones who tuck their kids into bed at night, and are driving them around, and in the morning when they get up and are at home. Investing in families is the best way churches can influence the heart of a child.
Does this mean we stop doing children’s programmes on a Sunday? No, not necessarily, but we do need to think about how what we do on a Sunday can help and support parents with what they are doing at home, rather than the other way around.
The prevailing culture is for parents to outsource experts to teach their children—tutors, swimming lessons, music lessons—and this has crept into the Church with the expectation that parents will drop their kids off at the children’s programme to teach them about God. However, parents are the experts on their children. Parents have the time and influence to disciple their children into a lifelong faith in Jesus. Our job as the Church is to help parents to see this and give them confidence and resources to do it.
Churches that intentionally invest in families by supporting and encouraging them provide faith communities where families are valued, connected and have a sense of belonging.
Children and families ministry in the context of community
It is up to us to look and listen, to understand our communities in order to know what they need and meet them there. This may mean we need to rethink what ‘Children’s Ministry’ looks like; what church looks like.
The mission remains the same, but the model might need to flex. What that might look like will vary depending on the community. Will we be courageous enough to try something different? Can we teach our children how to talk to children about Jesus and be ready when they bring them into our faith communities? Let us model contagious faith, so our children can learn to model contagious faith to their peers.
It is an encouragement to remember that it is the Holy Spirit who brings hope and life to children and families. We work in partnership with him and with each other. We have an incredible opportunity to bring change through the next generation. There is no quick fix, but rather a slow turning of the tide, as it says in Psalm 145:4: ‘Let each generation tell its children of your mighty acts; let them proclaim your power.’
By CCCNZ Children and Families Ministry Enabler Julie McKinnon: firstname.lastname@example.org